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Impearls: HIC 3.10: Shamanism

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Earthdate 2005-11-12

Shamanism   by A. L. Kroeber

A Yurok woman goes through the following stages to become a shaman:

First she dreams of a dead person, usually if not always a shaman, who puts into her body a “pain.”  The possession of this animate object in her person is what essentially constitutes her a shaman.

Then the remohpo, or “doctor dance,” is made for her in the sweat house for 10 days, during which she fasts and dances severely under the direction of older shamans.  The pain is thereby induced to leave her body, is exhibited, and is then reswallowed by her.  The purpose of this dance is to give the novice control of her “pain.”

After this, in summer, she goes to a “seat” or little monument on a mountain top, where she spends one night in speaking or dancing.  The function of this act is obscure.

After her return she usually goes through the remohpo once more.

Then follows the ukwerhkwer teilogitl, a dance around a large hot fire, to “cook the pains.”  The idea perhaps is that the pains are rendered more pliable or amenable to her will.  This rite includes a formula.  The shaman is now ready to practice her profession.

The Yurok accept as a self-evident fact, which they do not attempt to explain, their conviction that possession of one or more pains enables the carrier to see and extract similar pains from people who have been made sick by their internal presence.  The emphasis, in their ideas, is wholly on the “pain.”  The spirit enters into belief only to bestow the first pain, and seems not to be considered active thereafter.  Moreover, the spirit is the spirit of a human being, sometimes of an ancestor, in human form; not of an animal or mountain or lake, rarely of a disembodied divinity.  The customary North American concept of the “guardian spirit” is therefore reduced to a minimum among the Yurok.  The pain, on the other hand, as a material though animate object operating homeopathically, as it were, and therefore sympathetically, brings Yurok shamanism a step nearer magic than is usual.

A woman on her way for firewood perhaps begins to think of the dead who formerly lived in her town, notes how grass-grown and dim the path is, clears it of brush, and weeps in recollection.  Not long after she dreams.  A person says to her:  “I pity you as you always cry when you gather wood.  You should become a shaman.  Eat this!”  The woman, not knowing what it is, eats what is offered.  She wakes and realizes that what she thought reality was a dream.  The base of her sternum hurts; it is a pain growing in her.  But perhaps when she is on the path again, she may decide:  “Well, I dreamed it so.  I will try.”  Then she tells them in the house of her experience, and her relatives take her into the sweat house and make the remohpo for her for 10 days, so she will acquire (her power) readily.  The purpose of the dance is to make the pain which she dreamed to have been put into her come out of her body.  Perhaps it is displayed on a flat basket.  Then she drinks it again.  Later, in summer, in the seventh month, a male relative accompanies her to a stone chair (tsektseya) on a mountain.  There are such on Kewet, the mountain behind Weitspus, and on other ridges.  These seats are good for other things also.  They can be used to acquire luck in gambling or power of bewitching people; but they can not be used ignorantly.  One must know how long to fast, how to offer tobacco, what formula to speak.  The seats have been there since the time of the woge.  The shaman dances by a fire near the chair, and speaks things that are not known to other people.  Her kinsman watches that she does herself no harm.  In the morning he leads her back.  They are already dancing in the sweat house.  At last she enters; and then for 10 days the remohpo goes on again.  Men sing for her; when she is exhausted, one of her relatives dances for her until she recovers.  This is the only time a woman enters the sweat house (sic; but see below).

According to further accounts, a shaman becomes a shaman by dreaming of a dead shaman, who gives her the initial power.  Often a woman seeks to be a shaman.  At every opportunity she cries and cries, until finally the desired dream comes to her.

A man who knew the formula and ritual for the “pain cooking” after the second remohpo described it as follows:

Two kinsmen of the new shaman bring four limbs of pitch-pine wood and four large slabs of bark from a mountain.  A fire is made with these eight pieces of fuel in the house after the roof has been taken off.  The novice has been painted, in the sweat house, with black vertical stripes.  She now joins the people in the house, who dance in a circle alternately to the right and left about the fire, wearing fir branches in their belts to shield them from the heat.  When the ordeal becomes unendurable, they pour over themselves a little water which the ritualist has prepared with herb in it.  There is a separate vessel for the novice.  Spectators look on from outside.  The dancing continues without pause until the fire is wholly consumed.  Then some one pretends illness, and the novice seizes and begins to suck him as if to extract his pain.  Sometimes, too, a woman falls down during the dance, seized with a pain which will ultimately make her a shaman.  Some older practitioner then at once diagnoses her condition.  This pain-cooking rite is not indispensable, but novices like to undergo it because it increases their power and enables them to earn more in their profession.  The ritualist is in charge because he knows the necessary formula and herbs.  He is generally not a shaman himself.

The following is an account given by a shaman of repute of her acquisition of her powers:

I began with a dream.  At that time I was already married at Sregon.  In the dream I was on Bald Hills.  There I met a Chilula man who fed me deer meat which was black with blood.  I did not know the man, but he was a short-nosed person.  I had this dream in autumn, after we had gathered acorns.

In the morning I was ill.  A doctor was called in to treat me and diagnosed my case.  Then I went to the sweat house to dance for 10 nights.  This whole time I did not eat.  Once I danced until I became unconscious.  They carried me into the living house.  When I revived I climbed up the framework of poles for drying fish, escaped through the smoke hole, ran to another sweat house, and began to dance there.

On the tenth day, while I was dancing, I obtained control of my first “pain.”  It came out of my mouth looking like a salmon liver, and as I held it in my hands blood dripped from it to the ground.  This is what I had seen in my dream on Bald Hills.  I then thought that it was merely venison.  It was when I ate the venison that the pain entered my body.

On the eleventh day I began to eat again, but only a little.

All that winter I went daily high up on the ridge to gather sweat-house wood and each night I spent in the sweat house.  All this time I drank no water.  Sometimes I walked along the river, put pebbles into my mouth and spat them out.  Then I said to myself:  “When I am a doctor I shall suck and the pains will come into my mouth as cool as these stones.  I shall be paid for that.”  When day broke I would face the door of the sweat house and say:  “A long dentalium is looking in at me.”  When I went up to gather wood, I kept saying:  “The dentalium has gone before me; I see its tracks.”  When I had filled my basket with the wood, I said:  “That large dentalium, the one I am carrying, is very heavy.”  When I swept the platform before the sweat house clean with a branch, I said:  “I see dentalia.  I see dentalia.  I am sweeping them to both sides of me.”  So whatever I did I spoke of money constantly.

My sleeping place in the sweat house was atserger.  This is the proper place for a doctor.  I was not alone in the sweat house.  Men were present to watch, for fear I might lose my mind and do myself some harm.

Thus, once while the others slept, I dreamed I saw an uma'a coming.  One of his legs was straight, the other bent at the knee, and he walked on this knee as if it were his foot, and had only one eye.  Then I shouted, dashed out, and ran down along the river.  My male relatives pursued me and brought me back unconscious.  Then I danced for three nights more.  At this time I received my four largest pains.  One of these is blue, one yellowish, another red, and the fourth white.  Because I received these in dreaming about the uma'a they are the ones with which I cure sickness caused by an uma'a.

My smaller pains are whitish and less powerful.  It is they that came to me in my first period of training.  The pains come and go from my body.  I do not always carry them in me.  To-day they are inside of me.

Again, not long after, I went to the creek which flows in above Nohtsku'm.  I said to myself:  “When people are sick, I shall cure them if they pay me enough.”  Then I heard singing in the gully.  That same song I now sing in doctoring, but only if I am paid sufficiently.  After this I danced again for 10 days.

In my dancing I could see various pains flying above the heads of the people  Then I became beyond control trying to catch them.  Some of the pains were very hard to drive away.  They kept coming back, hovering over certain men.  Such men were likely to be sick soon.  Gradually I obtained more control of my pains, until finally I could take them out of myself, lay them in a basket, set this at the opposite end of the sweat house, and then swallow them from where I stood.  All this time I drank no water, gathered firewood for the sweat house, slept in this, and constantly spoke to myself of dentalium money.  Thus I did for nearly two years.  Then I began to be ready to cure.  I worked hard and long at my training because I wished to be the best doctor of all  During all this time, if I slept in the house at all, I put angelica root at the four corners of the fireplace and also threw it into the blaze.  I would say:  “This angelica comes from the middle of the sky.  There the dentalia and woodpecker scalps eat its leaves.  That is why it is so withered.”  Then I inhaled the smoke of the burning root.  Thus the dentalia would come to the house in which I was.  My sweating and refraining from water were not for the entire two years, but only for 10 days at a time again and again.  At such periods I would also gash myself and rub in young fern fronds.

In the seventh moon, after nearly two years, I stopped my training.  Then the ukwerhkwer teilogitl formula was made for me and we danced about the fire.  This cooked me, cooked my pains in me, and after this I was done and did not train any more.

When I am summoned to a patient I smoke and say to myself:  “I wish you to become well because I like what they are paying me.”  If the patient dies, I must return the payment.  Then I begin to doctor.  After I have danced a long time I can see all the pains in the sick person's body.  Sometimes there are things like bulbs growing in a man, and they sprout and flower.  These I can see but can not extract.  Sometimes there are other pains which I can not remove.  Then I refer the sick person to another doctor.  But the other doctor may say:  “Why does she not suck them out herself?  Perhaps she wishes you to die.”  Sometimes a doctor really wishes to kill people.  Then she blows her pains out through her pipe, sending them into the person that she hates.

A shaman is called kegeior; the pains, teinom or teilogitl; teilek or teile'm is “sick.”



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